As no human activity proves as universally absorbing as sex, many adult biographies focus on their subjects’ love lives. In Historical Heartthrobs, Kelly Murphy brings sex to the young adult biography, profiling fifty historical figures renowned for their physical appeal or personal charisma.
Murphy draws her subjects from the worlds of arts, letters, politics, sports, and fashion, including figures as diverse as Che Guevera, Coco Chanel, Ernest Hemingway, Frida Kahlo, John Wilkes Booth, Frederick Douglas, Marie Antoinette, Carmen Miranda, and Jim Thorpe. Some of her choices, such as Benjamin Franklin, may puzzle readers. She begins each profile with a brief summary of the individual’s life and accomplishments. Each entry also includes short headings about the subject’s sex life, overall significance, “Best Feature,” and “Heat Factor” on a scale from one to five. (Franklin gets a four!)
The collective biography’s focus and Murphy’s breezy, irreverent style make Historical Heartthrobs a guilty pleasure, much like celebrity gossip. But this resemblance is also the book’s downfall: while amusing and often interesting, Murphy’s assessments lack depth and, occasionally, accuracy. For example, she writes that Lord Byron’s poetry “shocked Victorian audiences,” but Byron died in 1824, thirteen years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. Murphy skates blithely over some ambiguities, including Chanel’s possible collaborations with the Nazis and Marie Antoinette’s real attitudes toward the peasantry. She also accuses writer Dorothy Parker of being shallow about appearances – a strange charge from the author of a book about attractive people. Finally, she examines her subjects’ sexual identities through a twenty-first century lens, celebrating Byron and George Sand as champions of GLBTQ rights. She forgets people of earlier eras did not think of sexuality in terms of orientation, but in acts.
None of this should detract from readers’ enjoyment of Historical Heartthrobs. However, it is a mere introduction to its subjects, and it often does them – and young adult readers – real injustice. Depending on our convictions, we admire some people for their courage and vision and revile others for theirs. When we look backwards, looks hardly matter.
-Dorothy A. Dahm